Monday, May 25, 2009

The Idea's the Thing

Let's face it:

The USA is not the literary capitol of the world. It just ain't. Americans are, by and large, a bunch of idiots. And it's not even that--the percentage of the the ones who do read...well...they read...let's call it light fare.

Okay. I'll be a little more kind. Stephen King always says that he writes "salami". So most Americans read "salami". That's okay. I'm not being cruel to whatever your favorite cold cut is. I'm just saying--like King said--that that's what it is:

cold cuts.

It's fast food. It's hamburgers and fried p'taters. And mass produced, at that.

And it's become even worse over the years.

When I was a young writer trying to sell short stories for a penny a word and, hopefully, some exposure in whatever slick or semi-pro magazine I could crack, I was packed with stories. Frankly, I was bursting at the seams to let them all out. I'd write like crazy and send stories out to magazines eight, nine, ten at a time. I kept careful records of where my stories were and who had them and who'd rejected them and who was likely to buy them and who'd bought them, etc. etc.

There was this guy whose name I'd see from time to time in those days when I was in my twenties and struggling like mad to make a sale. He was always around. Usually hanging about with folk who'd already "made it". Seemed a nice enough fellow, though, and full of ideas.

I forgot about him while I was trying to sell my yarns. He vanished into the background.

And, slowly, I began to realize that the old rule--"the plot's the thing"--had fallen away. It wasn't that anymore. Things had deteriorated to such an extent that the market had boiled it down to simply the basic idea: the one-line Hollywood pitch. Yeah, things had gotten that bad, even by the time I was entering my early 30s. Alas.

Once, I submitted a short story to a certain horror magazine being co-edited by a certain part-time writer/editor. That story was "One of Those Days". It was a decent story, but with a really good idea. That idea was this:

What if everyone in the USA who owned a gun suddenly walked out their door with those guns and started shooting?

That was the idea. So it became my short story "One of Those Days" and I sent it out to that certain magazine and that certain editor/writer. It was rejected. I still have the rejection letter. The editor/writer liked it, but said that it lacked a certain "impetus". His word: impetus.

I forgot about the rejection letter (but stored it in a folder as I did with all of my rejection letters). A couple months passed. I got a review copy of the new issue of that certain magazine co-edited by that certain writer/editor who'd told me that my story lacked that certain "impetus". I opened the magazine and started reading. The feature story in that magazine was by that editor/writer who'd rejected my story. Preceding it was a brief editorial by the publisher explaining how the issue had been ready to go to press when his co-editor had dropped that story in his lap. It was so good that he had to lay out the issue all over again so that he could include his co-editor's story that, the publisher explained, had just been written.

The plot of that story?

What if everyone in the USA who had a gun suddenly walked out their doors with those guns and started using them?

Uh huh. I was really, really pissed. But what could I do? Yeah, I had the rejection letter. Yeah, I had my story. Yeah, there was a mighty huge chunk of circumstantial evidence of a certain level of plagiarism there. But really? What could I do?

In addition, this certain writer/editor had come up with a way-cooler title for his version of my story than I had used. That really pissed me off, too.

Every time I think of the whole mess, I get really quiet and my hands turn into fists. Fists with quite a lot of "impetus".

Ah, well.

One of these days I may take this up in more specific terms. Maybe. Maybe not. I just ain't sure. But the thing that nasty experience taught me more than any other was the value of "the Idea". Hang onto it. Make sure you can make it your own, some way.

That dude that I used to see way back when? The guy who was always hanging out with other creative folk? He's gone on to make quite a living for himself selling ideas. Not even stories or novels. Just ideas. At least one of them was the #1 movie for a couple of weeks in recent years. My hat's off to him. He discovered a way to cash in on his basic idea without letting someone else fucking steal it from him.

The idea, dudes. That's the thing.

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